Naming and Framing: On the Concept of Extended Mind-Wandering

Jelle Bruineberg and Regina E. Fabry (BF) start their paper on extended mind-wandering by denouncing two insidious biases in extended mind research: The harmony bias and the cognitive task bias. Steering clear of these biases means acknowledging that a) not all technology use is cognitively enhancing and b) not all human activity is related to well-defined cognitive tasks. Before introducing their concept, however, BF offer an overview of the extended mind literature, which persuasively argues that human cognition is not always an intracranial matter but can in fact be intimately related to the use of technological artifacts. BF also develop a thorough analysis and critique of the field of mind-wandering research. They first challenge the criterion of task-unrelatedness, the idea that mind-wandering occurs when a mental episode is unrelated to task completion, because it is unclear whether there always is a primary task at stake (cf. the cognitive task bias). They then reject the criterion of stimulus-independence, which would preclude smartphone use from being a form of mind-wandering, because mental episodes always depend on some form of “exteroceptive and interoceptive stimulations” (9). Through such conceptual analyses, BF ultimately make room for a new member of the mind-wandering family: Extended mind-wandering (EMW). This concept refers to habitual, diversionary smartphone use, and BF proceed to develop an elaborate typology of this recognizable, everyday phenomenon: EMW can occur in task-present situations (trying to listen to a lecture) or task-absent situations (queuing for coffee), it can be intentional (picking up one’s phone to scroll) or unintentional (absent-mindedly grabbing one’s phone), and it can occur with meta-awareness (“tuning in”) or without it (“zoning out”). EMW is a rich and multifaceted concept, indeed. While I am deeply impressed with the paper and commend its original philosophical insights, it would be boring if I were to simply sing its praises. I will therefore discuss two aspects in which our perspectives diverge and use these disagreements to pose three questions to the authors.

Naming: From mind-wandering to distraction

Framing: From internal thoughts to embodied habits
My first quibble is with the naming of the phenomenon. BF initially list a host of descriptors like task-unrelated, inattentive, and absent-minded smartphone use, but ultimately opt for the concept of (extended) mind-wandering and subsume all the other concepts under its banner. But can the concept really bear all that weight? Let us look at an example: “Robert sits in class trying to listen to a lecture. He draws out his phone and checks his social media. He catches himself scrolling through his feed, puts the phone away and returns his focus to the lecture” (4). BF categorize this example as an instance of task-present EMW. It is certainly true that there is a conflict between what Robert is trying to do here and what he ends up doing (cf. the harmony bias). To me, however, this makes the case a clear-cut example of (digital) distraction. J.L. Austin once remarked that ordinary language should have, if not the last word, then at least the first word in scientific studies. The semantic core of mind-wandering, ‘to wander’, is a voluntary activity, and it is very hard (if not absurd) to imagine a person ‘wandering’ against their will. Much like letting one’s dog off its leash, it seems intuitive to say that one lets one’s mind wander. Letting one’s mind wander, however, is very different from having one’s mind drawn-away (dis-tracted) from something, and I believe that the latter description is what best captures Robert’s experience. At best, I therefore think a phrase like ‘unintentional extended mind-wandering’ is a clunky synonym for digital distraction.
My second quibble is with the framing of the phenomenon. By coining the concept of extended mind-wandering, BF go a long way toward dismantling the dualist logics and intracranialism that haunt so much cognitive research. With this break in mind, it is surprising that the rest of the paper is awash with traditional cognitive terms like tasks, representation, and stimuli. To me, adopting such terms cedes too much ground to cognitivism. As an example, BF adopt the traditional distinction between endogenous and exogenous smartphone-related inattentiveness and exclude the latter in order to focus on how “the user’s own thoughts drift toward smartphone-related activity” (3). But endogenous is Latin for generated (-genous) within (endo-) and choosing to focus on thoughts generated ‘within’ the user not only excludes external notifications, it also ignores embodied interaction ‘between’ user and device. If I were to analyze habitual technology use, I would be (and am!) very concerned with such embodied interactions. Another example is the cognitive concept of ‘task’, a term that occurs more than 100 times in the paper. I would be very interested in learning more about this concept. The paper tentatively defines tasks as “self-imposed individual projects partially constituted by the agent’s current concern” (9) but proceeds to distinguish “trying to listen to a lecture” (a task) from “queuing for coffee” (apparently not a task). Is that because “trying to listen to a lecture” is the only cognitive task of the two? If so, why is that?

Three questions for further discussion

  1. Why opt for ‘mind-wandering’ instead of ‘distraction’?
  2. What is the body’s role in extended mind-wandering?
  3. What makes a given activity count as a cognitive task?